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An Eclectic Master Craftsman: An Interview with Steven Wilson

Stephen Humphries
Photo: Lasse Hoile

The ever prodigious Porcupine Tree main man Steven Wilson talks at length with PopMatters about the problems with download culture, the inferiority of the MP3, his strong work ethic and the mysteries of the creative process.

If The Guinness Book of World Records had a category for “most prolific musical artist", Steven Wilson would have a lock on it.

Best known as the singer-guitarist-songwriter-producer of Porcupine Tree -- a progressive rock band in the truest sense of the term -- Wilson also lends his multi-hyphenate, multi-tasking skills to side projects such as No-Man (art rock), Bass Communion (ambient electronica), and Blackfield (indie pop rock). And that’s when he isn’t producing bands such as Opeth or remastering the King Crimson back catalogue in 5.1 surround sound. When a fan recently updated the British musician’s complete discography, the PDF file totaled 750 entries across 369 pages.

In short, Steven Wilson makes the likes of Joseph Arthur, Ryan Adams, and Conor Oberst look like laggardly slackers.

Somehow, the 41-year-old human gyroscope has carved out additional time to create his first solo record, Insurgentes (K-Scope), an album with more diversity than the Periodic table of Elements. Over the course of 55 minutes, Insurgentes encompasses plaintive piano ballads, metallic industrial noise, mathematical progressive rock, giddy pop, metaphysical psychedelia, and fuzzy shoe gazer anthems. As Wilson puts it, “This really is the first time I can say this can be an album under my own name because this is the first time I can say, ‘This is every aspect of my musical personality.’”

The miscegenate mélange coheres surprisingly well and reviewers -- such as Rolling Stone’s David Fricke -- have hailed the album as “among the best” of Wilson’s many records. Britain’s Classic Rock magazine called Insurgentes “a beautiful and mysterious record that, were it to bear the logo ‘Radiohead’ on its cover, would already be hailed as a masterpiece.”

Indeed, though Wilson is fêted by the likes of Rush’s Alex Lifeson and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew -- all of whom have appeared on recent Porcupine Tree releases -- he is hardly a brand name in the mainstream music world. That’s rapidly changing. Wilson now has the clout to call up David Sitek of TV on the Radio and commission a remix of a track from Insurgentes.

Chalk that up to the success of Porcupine Tree’s ninth album, 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet (Atlantic), an intelligent concept piece about teenage alienation amid the information overload of the long-tail era. (Here’s a prog band that, refreshingly, takes its literary cues from Bret Easton Ellis rather than Tolkien.) Fear of a Blank Planet entered the Billboard charts at #59 and has since sold over 250,000 copies worldwide, boosting the band to theater and arena-sized venues.

Wilson is also garnering renown as an outspoken opponent against MP3s and P2P file sharing. During the making of Insurgentes, Wilson and longtime visual collaborator Lasse Hoile made a documentary that, among other things, examines how digital files have dulled a younger generation’s appreciation for high-fidelity audio. In the YouTube trailer for the film, Wilson devises cruel ways to destroy multiple iPods, their burnt and twisted corpses serving as effigies for what Wilson derisively dubs “download culture".

PopMatters recently called Wilson at his home outside London to discuss the making of his solo album, his prodigious work rate, and why he’s not holding his breath for a party invite from Steve Jobs.

So, how many iPods were harmed during the making of Insurgentes?

About 10, I think. But each one in a different way. We used a sledgehammer, blowtorch, shotgun, wood chipper. We ran over one in a car. We tried to make it funny with a bit of a theme through the film.

Can you encapsulate the statement you’re making against “download culture", of which the iPod is the ultimate symbol?

I’m not trying to say that the iPod is inherently bad. There are some great things about iPods and download culture. The fact that people are arguably listening to more music than ever now, and probably more wide ranging in terms of what they’re listening to than before. And the convenience aspect is wonderful. But what concerned me is that no one was really raising the problems of iPods. There are some really serious issues for me. I can break it down into three basic categories.

Number one, the quality issue. I really wonder if people realize what shit they are listening to when they listen to an MP3. The best analogy I can come up with is the idea that, if you took someone to see a beautiful painting in an Art Gallery, and you stood them in front of the painting so they could see the texture of the paint, the colors coming off the canvas, the power and the depth, of that masterpiece, and then you took them out of the Art Gallery and you showed them a photocopy of the same painting. Now, the thing is, you can still appreciate, even from the photocopy, that it’s a masterpiece. It’s the same with an MP3, you can still appreciate it’s a great piece of music and you can still enjoy it, but the quality of experience is so much lower. So much lower.

What was depressing was reading this week in the British music press that some professor has done a survey and found that young people prefer the sound of MP3s to high-resolution audio. They’ve become accustomed to this rather hollow, metallic, compromised, compressed sound. I can sympathize with that. I still love scratchy old vinyl. I just don’t think there’s any comparison between that and MP3s.

That’s point number one. Point number two is the whole issue of the compromising of the packaging of music. I realize, in some ways, it’s kind of fetishistic thing to associate the presentation of music with the presentation and packaging. But having said that, if something is a beautiful piece of art in terms of its musical content, why shouldn’t it presented as something beautiful in terms of its visual content?

Growing up in the tail end of the vinyl era, I still remember buying albums in beautiful gatefold sleeves with lyric sheets, and pull outs, and inserts, and textures. I miss that. I suppose kids these days don’t care about that, because they’ve never had it. The idea that music is reduced to a few software files is an ugly concept.

The final issue I have with iPods is what you might call the playlist mentality, the jukebox mentality. In my experience, it seems, a lot of people have their iPod on shuffle or they create their own playlists. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that my albums aren’t meant to be listened to in that way. They are created as musical continuums. I put a lot of thought into the idea that someone will listen to my record from beginning to end and I can take them on a kind of musical journey. So, the idea that somebody might program my music in a play list or they might have their iPod on shuffle and hear a track from Insurgentes after a Coldplay track, and then followed by a Britney Spears track, or whatever it is, again is an ugly idea to me.

For me, it’s the same with all technology, or most technology: It’s one step forward, and two steps back.

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